Yahoo! Japan and advertising agency Dentsu teamed up to ensure Tokyo Municipal Assembly vote was accessible to some 30,000 voters with limited vision and little access to information on candidates. Julian Ryall reports.
The July 2 election for the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly will go down in Japanese political history for a number of reasons. It was the worst showing for candidates of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party since it was formed in 1955 and has given Governor Yuriko Koike a sweeping mandate to tackle some of the problems that face the city.
Remarkably, it was also the first time that visually impaired people in Tokyo had unfettered access to details on all the candidates running to represent their interests.
"Under Japan's election laws, literature that spells out each candidate's background, manifesto and policies are sent to every household in the constituency," said Akira Suzuki, a creative director at Tokyo-based Dentsu Inc. advertising agency, which has helped to promote the Hearable Election system, devised by Yahoo! Japan Corp.
"But because the vast majority of that information is only provided as visual or written text, then it is impossible for visually challenged people to read it and get the information they need to make an informed decision."
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Twenty percent read Braille
"To be fair, some areas do provide information in Braille, but it usually has to be requested - which is troublesome - and statistics suggest that only 20 percent of visually challenged people can read Braille anyway," Suzuki told DW. "That means it is not very effective as a solution," Suzuki added.
The law also strictly limits the ways in which information about candidates can be disseminated online and the rules drawn up by the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications declare that campaign information can only be posted online in the form of a PDF. To add another layer of complication, the Election Administration requires candidates to use a PDF template. That template cannot be read by screen-reading software.
"Visually challenged people have a hard time figuring out who candidates are to begin with," said Suzuki. "All they know about the candidates is what they hear on the radio or TV, which inevitably focus on the most famous or popular candidates."
"Any candidates who are keen to assist people with physical disabilities are often unable to get their message across because they are simply not popular enough to win a great deal of coverage," he added. "That means these candidates hardly even exist in the minds of visually challenged people."
Yahoo! Japan decided to solve the problem of access to information for visually impaired people - but also to try to get across to sighted people the challenges that they face on a daily basis.
The 20-strong development team built a website that provided information on all the candidates running in the Tokyo election. They then collaborated with visually challenged people to use the most commonly used screen-reading software to make the contents of the site both audible and easy to use.
The site also provided broader information on the policies of each of the parties taking part and, because the information was not posted by individual candidates or their parties, did not contravene election laws.
And, to underline the issues that visually impaired people have to deal with, the developers designed the site as black text on a black background. Only when screen reading software is applied can the information be accessed.
The designers said the idea is to "replicate the stress that visually challenged people feel whenever they attempt to obtain information related to the election."
Chikasa Komazawa, a visually impaired resident of Tokyo who helped the designers create the new information page, believes it is long overdue.
"I was angry about a situation in which the information that I needed to make a decision in the election was only published in a format that we could not access," he told DW. "I even thought that if these people didn't really care about us, are we not even being recognized as fellow citizens?"
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Access is 'meaningful'
"I believe it is very meaningful that this website will make it easier for people like me to obtain information, but also that more people are aware of this issue," he said. "The next thing I am hoping for is that the authorities will change the laws that only permit a PDF to be uploaded to provide information - and one that cannot be read by screen-reader software."
More than 30,000 visually impaired people were eligible to vote in the July 2 election and although there are no statistics available on how many exercised that right, there was a sharp increase in the number of people who voted this time around.
In the last Tokyo Municipal Assembly election, in June 2013, a mere 43.50 percent of the eligible voters cast a ballot - the second lowest figure in the assembly's history. This year, that total climbed to 51.28 percent.
Suzuki believes that at least half of the city's visually impaired voters exercised their democratic right, and that was in part due to the Yahoo! Japan project.
"Being able to participate in an election is one of our most fundamental human rights," he said. "Due to the rules imposed by the government, the universal rights of visually impaired people it being infringed upon. I hope this system will go some way to changing that."